Most of our supermarket food comes wrapped in plastic. This is great for keeping food fresh. But plastic's production, use and disposal releases harmful carbon emissions.

According to WRAP, plastic packaging in the UK accounts for nearly 70% of our plastic waste. That's why consumers are turning to greener alternatives, such as recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging.

What's recyclable packaging?

Recyclable packaging is made of materials that can be used again, usually after processing. If you're wondering what packaging items are recyclable, think of corrugated cardboard, paper, metal and some plastics.

Householders can usually recycle these via their council's recycling collection. Businesses can recycle with a mixed recycling service, such as First Mile's. Glass is also a 100% recyclable material and can be recycled endlessly without any loss in purity or quality.

Hard-to-recycle items include black plastic food trays, single-use plastics (like food wrappers and film lids) and food-soiled packaging.

What does biodegradable mean?

The definition of biodegradable products is anything that's ‘able to decay naturally and in a way that is not harmful'.

Consider what happens if you leave an apple in a fruit bowl for long enough. Over a couple of months, it will turn brown and rot as it gets eaten away by microorganisms. Biodegradable packaging is the same. It will naturally break down and be reabsorbed by the environment.

The problem with the term ‘biodegradable' is that it's referring to an unregulated natural process. It's easy to assume that anything labelled ‘biodegradable' will break down relatively quickly, but this is far from true.

In fact, biodegradable packaging could take anything from a few days to a million years to break down. And if it ends up in landfill, the process of decomposition slows down and the materials release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

So, watch out for companies using the term ‘biodegradable' just to claim green credentials.

What about biodegradable plastics?

Biodegradable plastics aren't the answer. That's because they don't disappear. They simply remain in the environment for a very long time and eventually disintegrate into microplastics. These tiny pieces of plastic damage marine life and end up in our food chain.

What does compostable mean?

Compost is decaying plant material that you add to soil to improve its quality. Anything compostable can be used as compost when it decays.

If packaging is labelled ‘compostable', that means it's been certified to biodegrade under specific conditions, such as within set timeframes or at certain temperatures. It won't produce toxins as it deteriorates and its end product provides fertiliser for the earth.

For something to be legally labelled compostable, it must be certified to break down in industrial composting facilities within 180 days.

If you're a householder, don't put your compostable packaging in your garden- or food-waste collections. Most local authorities won't accept this because of the risk of contamination. You'll need to check for any alternative collections locally.

If you're a business, don't add compostables to mixed recycling, food waste or even your biodegradable waste. Instead, dispose of it with a specialist compostable packaging recycling service.

The difference: biodegradable and compostable packaging

People often confuse these terms, but there are important differences.

With biodegradable packaging, there is:

  • no set timeframe for decomposition
  • no specific environment required for it to break down

Biodegradable products are not necessarily compostable.

Compostable packaging has an advantage over biodegradable packaging because:

  • it's certified to break down into non-toxic components (under the right conditions)
  • it provides nutrients for the environment

Some materials can decompose in your home compost (like egg shells and banana peel), but not all compostable materials can be composted at home.

If you want to know how to tell the difference between biodegradable and compostable, look for the following logos:

Compostable Logos

If you see these, you'll know that the products are compostable.

Are compostable materials better than recyclable materials?

Composting is for organic matter; other recycling is for paper, glass and plastics. Compostable packaging is a much better option for the planet than plastic. However, make sure it’s composted by a specialist compostable packaging recycling service, like First Mile’s.

Vegware™ and decent packaging™ – plant-based, compostable food-service packaging

Vegware™ and decent packaging are two great examples of companies that use compostable packaging as a viable alternative to plastic packaging. They make coffee cups, cutlery, straws, soup containers, takeaway boxes and much more. Everything is certified compostable in its finished form.

It's guaranteed that the packaging will be biodegradable under specific conditions – such as within set timeframes or at certain temperatures. All the compostability-certified products become nutrient-rich compost within 12 weeks when disposed of in a BPI-certified commercial composting facility.

Vegware's compostable materials include:

  • PLA (polylactic acid), which is a ‘bio-plastic' that comes from plant-based material
  • bagasse, made from reclaimed sugarcane
  • paper and cardboard
  • NatureFlex™, a cellulose wood pulp

First Mile is proud to be working with Vegware™ and decent packaging™ to make it easy for businesses, their workforce and customers to return and recycle any Vegware™ or decent packaging™ items. Simply set up a Return and Recycle point in your shop, restaurant, café or workplace and let First Mile do the rest!

If you want to find out more about Vegware™, you can listen to Bruce Bratley chatting with Eilidh O'Connor, Vegware's Senior Waste Management Consultant, on our popular Zero 50 podcast.

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